By Mike Watt

One of the many reasons homeowners, commercial facilities, and especially schools have carpet cleaned on a regular basis is because it can help protect indoor air quality.

As we now know, carpet can act like a sponge; it absorbs airborne impurities, trapping them within its fibers and preventing them from being released and inhaled. Regular, ongoing carpet cleaning, typically using the extraction method, helps remove these impurities so that this process of absorbing and trapping airborne impurities can continue. The cleaning process also protects the health of children and pets that crawl and sleep on carpet.

Most of these facilities are concerned that the cleaning solutions used by carpet cleaning technicians not negatively impact indoor air quality as well. This is why more and more facilities, especially schools, require the use of environmentally preferable, green-certified cleaning solutions. Not only have potentially harmful chemicals and ingredients been removed from these cleaning solutions, but also a major culprit, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and other chemical emissions have been removed or reduced. Or have they?

Some clarification is necessary when it comes to VOCs. A green-certified cleaning solution used for carpet cleaning may indicate it has few or no VOCs. While this claim is likely true, it may not be completely correct.

But before examining this situation, let’s start first with what we know. We know, for instance, that all the major green certification organizations — Green Seal, UL Environment, and GREENGUARD — have similar criteria and standards as to the ingredients used to manufacture these cleaning solutions. Essentially, the guidelines tell the manufacturer which ingredients are acceptable and which are not.

And, because performance is now a key factor in evaluating these products, we can assume these cleaning solutions are comparable to, if not better than, traditional carpet cleaning solutions. However, the problem comes when these green-certified cleaning solutions begin claiming they have few or no VOCs.

A closer look at VOCs

Let’s define what VOCs are. The U.S. Natural Library of Medicine defines VOCs as follows:

Volatile organic compounds, sometimes referred to as VOCs, are organic compounds that easily become vapors or gases [becoming airborne]. Along with carbon, they contain elements such as hydrogen, oxygen, fluorine, chlorine, bromine, sulfur, or nitrogen.

VOCs are found in all types of products, not just cleaning solutions. They are also in paints, adhesives, glues, building materials, fabrics, and many other materials. The big problem with VOCs is that, especially in an indoor environment, they can cause an array of health problems.

Short-term exposure can result in such ailments as:

  • Eye and respiratory tract irritation,
  • Headaches,
  • Dizziness, fatigue, and loss of coordination,
  • What is referred to as “cognitive problems” such as difficulties reasoning or understanding and memory impairment,
  • Allergic skin reactions and nausea.

Long-term exposure can be even more serious. Long-term VOC exposure has been associated with liver and kidney damage as well as damage to the central nervous system. These concerns all support why the green certification organizations have made a point of requiring manufacturers to reduce the number of VOCs that can become airborne in their products. What’s the issue?

If the number and amount of VOCs in these products have been reduced, what’s the problem?

The VOCs many manufacturers are removing from their products are “ozone depleting” VOCs. This means that the VOCs that can harm the ozone layer have been reduced or eliminated, but that’s not necessarily true for the VOCs that we breathe in the indoor environment.

We refer to this as the “accidental deception” because, in many cases, that is exactly what it is. Manufacturers of cleaning solutions used for carpet care as well as manufacturers of all types of products are proud that their green alternatives have followed green certification guidelines as it pertains to reducing VOCs. It is possible that these manufacturers do not even know that this reduction only applies to the ozone layer and not the air we breathe.

According to Scott Laughlin, an account executive with UL Environment, some green-certified products use a “gram per meter” measuring method when it comes to VOCs. A certain number of VOC grams per meter can be acceptable and the product green-certified. However, and as discussed, VOCs are still present, can become airborne, and can have a negative impact on human health.

Why do They Put VOCs in Products Anyway?

You might wonder why so many products contain VOCs. The reason is rather simple: VOCs often help the product work more effectively.

For instance, VOCs are solvents, so they can make cleaning solutions work better. VOCs in paint help the paint adhere more effectively and allow manufacturers to create more hues and pigments.

Addressing the problem

The way to address this issue is to look for cleaning solutions that have been “dual certified.” In the future, we are going to see more and more products certified by two or more certification organizations because these organizations are now focusing on different issues.

For instance, Green Seal and UL Environment may be more concerned about how sustainable a product is and certify products only made with safer and renewable resources. Additionally, they are concerned about what happens to products after they are used. However, GREENGUARD is primarily focused on what it calls the “emissions” released by a product with use and its impact on indoor air quality as well as human health and cognitive abilities.

Because of this, for a carpet cleaner who wants to assure his client that the products being used are both green-certified and have no damaging VOCs, a good option would be to select products certified by Green Seal or ECOLOGO, for instance, as well as GREENGUARD. This would cover all the bases, promote sustainability, and protect indoor air quality.

For some in the carpet cleaning and professional cleaning industry, this may all seem a bit confusing. What is happening is that green cleaning and the science of green cleaning are advancing. It’s a journey. We are learning more and more about these products and how to better protect human health while at the same time protecting the environment.

Mike Watt is director, corporate accounts/food service and Ontario region manager at Avmor, a leading North American manufacturer of professional cleaning solutions. He can be reached at